11/20/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Solar Diamond in the Rough

My family had a fleeting chance to join the ranks of the super-rich. The year was 1933 in the midst of the Depression and my father was a young lawyer just starting out on his own. A friend approached him with a proposal to split the purchase of a thousand shares of an intriguing new company selling at two dollars a share. A thousand dollars was beyond my dad's means in those days, and besides, it was for an unknown quantity, so the deal fell through for both prospective investors.

The company in question was IBM, and if my dad had bought those 500 shares and held on through innumerable stock splits over the years, we would have hit the jackpot.

I was determined not to make the same mistake of failing to recognize a diamond in the rough. That said, early in my environmental journalist career, I had an assignment covering the startup of an unheralded waste disposal industry. I envisioned a bright future for this business and in ensuing years was rewarded handsomely for my original ground floor modest investment (which was all I could afford) in company stock.

Limited success with waste disposal did not erase the memory of the missed IBM opportunity, which was why I was always on the lookout for a "sleeper". In the mid 1980s', I thought I had found it, thanks again to my environmental background. What I perceived to be a potential bonanza in the formative stage was the solar energy industry, and I purchased some dirt cheap stocks of fledgling companies in the next few years.

To my disappointment, the decades flew by with the companies either losing value or going out of business altogether, yet I grimly held on. It eventually turned out that my foresight had some validity, but was several decades too early. Today, the solar industry gives strong indication of finally coming into its own. I guess the moral of the story is that if you have conviction and some decent insight behind your investment, be patient( assuming you can afford a lengthy wait if necessary).

Solar power is growing at an annual rate of nearly 50 percent, and since it is currently only a small percentage of the nation's energy mix, it has a long way to go. By contrast, fossil fuel production over the past decade has increased by a mere 11 percent and its future may be truncated by environmental concerns.

It should thus come as no surprise that the stock prices of the leading publicly traded solar energy companies are edging up in anticipation of projected demand. Indeed, a burgeoning population, more competitive pricing, increased pressure for energy alternatives, and the need for massive pollution reduction augur a rosy future for the still evolving industry.

The recent trend imbues me with long overdue excitement. For a conscientious investor like myself, the chance to upgrade the environment and earn a smart profit in one fell swoop is a fiscal marriage made in heaven.